Harrogate’s newly reopened and refurbished Mercer gallery is a lovely space to hang paintings, light and airy, and they have started with a very beautiful exhibition of the Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw’s work. Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight. It is the first exhibition of his work for over thirty years, and when you walk around it looking at the stunning images which he created it feels like it is about time. Grimshaw was a self taught artist, whose success was built on popular taste rather than critical acclaim and there are weaknesses in his work from time to time, but when he is at his best there is nobody like him. He paints the effects of light, whether it is a street lamp casting reflections in a wet city street, or moonlight on the trees and water of Wharfedale with great feeling and delicacy. He knew what he was good at, and people liked it. This meant that he does tend to repeat effects and compositions, but that’s fine by me. His work didn’t develop or change much, he simply spent his whole career developing his own singular vision until he could do it to perfection. By the 1880’s he was producing up to fifty paintings a year.
Strangely the delicacy which he shows when painting the effects of light sometimes escapes him when it comes to human figures, and some of these can be a little clumsy at times, but when he can produce the kind of beauty that is in the images surrounding these words it would be churlish to dwell on that. His work has a spiritual, contemplative quality which is very moving. At his best he was very, very good. I was reminded of Robert Browning’s famous quote “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I admire him for pushing himself to the very limits of his talent. Just get out there on a moonlit night, or into a lamplit street at dusk as the lights are showing in the shops and try to do what he did- it’s not easy. All right, Whistler was better, but Grimshaw would probably have agreed with that and anyway, nobody could beat Whistler.
His sense of composition was very strong, almost photographic, and sometimes his work can be close to photorealism, but mostly it is dreamy, romantic and ethereal. My own favourites are the Leeds street scenes. Grimshaw was born in Leeds and it shows. They are large, confident, and perfectly composed, making beauty from what was a noisy, dirty, urban city, finding a sense of peace in the middle of chaos. Grimshaw’s is a still small voice, and one well worth listening to. I am very glad to have had the chance to see such a fine selection of his work, with some of his best paintings there to show the twenty first century what he could do. He may not have been one of the very best, few of us are, but he certainly more than earned his right to that.